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Immigration Experts Decry “Humanitarian Disaster” on the Border


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Together, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are barely the size of the state of Oregon. Yet the region is among the most violent in the world, especially in Honduras, which suffers from the highest per capita murder rate on the planet. 

The powerful drug cartels that have deeply penetrated the governments of the three countries have created a climate so dangerous that it has touched off a well-documented exodus north to the United States, where many of the migrants seeking safety are held in government detention facilities at the border.
The story has been reported in the national media for months, but not fully or even very accurately, according to three immigration experts who spoke on a panel at the Columbus School of Law on Oct. 27.
“Immigration Law and Policy: Crisis at the Border” brought together Dree K. Collopy, CUA Law Class of 2007, partner, Benach Ragland LLP, and Lecturer at the law school’s Immigration Litigation Clinic; Shaina Aber, policy director, U.S. Jesuit Conference Office of Social and International Ministries, and Secretary/Treasurer of the Latin America Working Group; and Katharina Obser, program officer, Migrant Rights and Justice Program, Women’s Refugee Commission.
The three women shared personal and professional stories about working with the migrant population that is currently held in place by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and other government agencies.
Speaking first, Aber traced the history of the ever-escalating crime and violence in Central America that has led to today’s massive push north by its population. The region is even more dangerous that it was in the 1980s, said Aber, noting that “police are deeply penetrated by organized crime” and “children are seen as gang members or potential gang members.”
“The U.S. government fails to meet the humanitarian obligations we have. Putting families and children out of sight [in detention facilities] doesn’t mean they’re out of harm’s way,” Aber said.
Although unaccompanied minors sent to the U.S. border by desperate parents face a different legal track than do intact families, the process of permanent entry into the U.S. isn’t easy for anyone. Immigration law may be second only to tax law in its complexity, and many of those who hope to live in the U.S. have little grasp of what is required.
Katharina Obser said that although the point of detention is about compliance, not punishment, “the look and feel of these detention facilities is very jail-like.” Detained migrants often face great difficulty getting access to immigration lawyers who can plead their cases before a judge, leaving them helpless against the system.
“The system is so stacked against you that you basically have no chance of being granted asylum. The government is not letting anyone leave detention facilities,” she said.
One of the larger detention facilities in the country sits in remote Artesia, New Mexico. Dree Collopy has visited the place that she calls “a deportation mill,” and is currently pro bono counsel to some of its residents.
Collopy says that contrary to the letter and spirit of American immigration law, Artesia and similar facilities have but one goal: to send as many migrants back as possible.
“No one’s getting out of there unless they’re getting deported,” she said. "This is something I never thought I would see in the U.S.”
Collopy said that the near absence of legal due process is exacerbated by language difficulties. Many Central Americans from smaller villages speak regional dialects that are difficult for mainstream Spanish-speakers to understand, much less translate.
None of the speakers was lit with optimism about policy changes anytime soon to the nation’s system of detention at the border. Plans are underway to soon open a new detention facility in Texas, one that will hold up to 2,400 people.
The panel discussion was sponsored by a number of law school organizations: the Law and Public Policy Program, American Constitution Society for Law and Policy, Latin American Law Students Association, Women’s Law Caucus, and Immigration and Refugee Interest Society.